BFI 60th London Film Festival Part 3: Now’s the time to focus on the extraordinarily rich crop of documentaries from the 2016 London Film Festival – including lots of biopics, some very personal passion projects, politics and quite a bit of music. And it’s also high time we handed out those entirely virtual, but nonetheless highly covetable, annual DVDfever Awards, as judged by Helen M Jerome. So here goes…
One of the year’s absolutely must-see documentaries is The 13th, from Ava DuVernay, a devastating indictment of the policy of criminalising, incarcerating and monetising African Americans. With extraordinary footage and interviews brilliantly assembled in Adam Curtis’ fashion, the result is jaw-dropping – and now available on Netflix.
Some of the most influential filmmakers aren’t necessarily box office champions, and David Lynch is a prime example. Revered by critics, students and peers for works from Eraserhead and The Elephant Man to Mulholland Drive and beyond, Lynch is now starting to feel the lens turned around onto him as its subject. Jon Nguyen‘s David Lynch: The Art Life is shot at a leisurely pace, giving us the full Lynch biography of not just his film, but also his other artistic exploits, as well as glimpses of his family life, with his young daughter, Lula, randomly wandering into shot as he paints and creates. At times dark and almost confessional, this is a welcome and illuminating look at Lynch, especially as we hear it from the horse’s mouth. At the other extreme is Peter Braatz‘s Blue Velvet Revisited, assembled from hours of stills, footage and interviews made by Braatz when he was invited onto the Blue Velvet set three decades ago. Almost like the outtakes on a DVD extras set, with no linear or narrative purpose, this is weirdly fascinating, like the man himself. One for Lynch completists only.
Since his longterm passion project, Boyhood, was released, Richard Linklater has risen from cult director status to mainstream favourite. Now he’s celebrated in Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, from Louis Black and Karen Bernstein, with much of the doc revolving around the making of Boyhood. Resolutely not Hollywood, he remains based in Austin, Texas and puts his success down to “just hard work”. He claims to make movies about time, real people and real situations and is grounded by having grown up in a small town with “one stop light and one movie theatre”. Apart from Boyhood, the film examines his early, lower budget films like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy, with insight from his lead actors, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. But we also dip into projects which don’t quite fit expectations, including School of Rock. Defying traditional narrative, building an ecosystem around his home, even giving unlikely stars like Matthew McConaughey their starts – all these help make Linklater such an admired artist and character.
Another towering figure of the visual arts is celebrated in Laura Israel‘s gorgeous, frequently black and white film, Don’t Blink: Robert Frank. It’s about one of the most important photographers, and occasional filmmakers of the 20th Century, who made his mark with his Americans collection and was a close pal of the Beat writers from Kerouac to Ginsberg – as well as chronicling the Rolling Stones. Along with Frank’s insight we get loads of light and shade from his soulmate June Leaf, and there’s lots of fun too as we almost stumble across revelations about his technique. We also see the impish, roguish side of Frank, thanks to the director’s intimate knowledge of her subject, having worked as his editor for two decades.
Seeing people at the very top of their game can make a documentary audience feel privileged, especially if you glean some clues about their character and what makes them so exceptional. Three films fall into this category, looking at giants of chess, football and ballet. When he was just four years old, the parents of Magnus Carlsen spotted that he was good with Lego and could memorise flags of the world, so they let him have a go at chess, in which he flourished against much older players – even taking on Garry Kasparov. Now director Benjamin Ree charts Magnus’ warts-and-all story, which leads him to eventually challenge the world’s number one, Vishy Anand, and sees him dubbed the ‘Mozart of Chess’ who can beat a whole bunch of players even when he’s playing blindfolded. In fact, the phrase “climbing Everest in tennis shoes with no oxygen” is one description of how effortless Magnus seems even while playing under pressure. Rather neatly, the film’s release coincides with his winning the World Championship once again, and Ree captures the madness and control around the young grandmaster’s life.
George Best: All By Himself is a reverent documentary by Daniel Gordon about the great, late, lost talent of British football. There’s fabulous audio of Best himself throughout, helping put context into the timeline of events, and increasing the sense that he really was the fifth, or perhaps sixth, Beatle. His looks and his skill brought him the fame that lifted him up and plunged him down, and Gordon helps us make sense of this by showing the cars he drove, the clubs and boutiques he bought into, and the products, from bubble gum, aftershave and breakfast cereal to football boots, that traded on his endorsement. Without Best, it’s hinted, there would have been no Beckham. Even his friend, Paddy Crerand comments of Best’s slide that it was “downhill on a toboggan”, seeing him descend into a life of booze and sex, hiding from the press, moving abroad, and Best even admitting himself that drink “controlled me”, just as it had destroyed his own mother before him.
Celebrating and examining the extraordinary talent of ballet bad boy, Sergei Polunin, Dancer, from Steven Canto dives straight into Polunin getting high right before a performance. Considered by some to be “a God”, he is eternally rock & roll, with his tattoos and his rebellious streak, yet every time he goes on stage he feels he must be perfect, to match the expectations and adoration of audiences and fellow dancers. But we also see how the sacrifices of his parents and his grandmother have enabled him to get here, propelling him into the best ballet schools (with evidence on home movies), and finally into the Royal Ballet itself as its youngest ever principal dancer. Polunin’s existential cry remains, however: “When I dance I don’t think it’s who I am,” and we may have to satisfy ourselves by continually replaying David LaChapelle’s captivating video of Polunin interpreting Hozier’s Take Me To Church on YouTube once he hangs up his tights. In the meantime, this bio is as close as we’ll get.
Another flawed genius who arguably threw away his talent is captured in Kasper Collin‘s I Called Him Morgan, about trumpeter Lee Morgan. Starting with his death in 1972, aged just 33, the film scrolls back to show how he was on his way to becoming a jazz star aged 16, playing with John Coltrane and Art Blakey, with snatches of glorious music throughout to illustrate his gifts. The backbone and structure of the film comes from a long audio interview with his widow, Helen, gradually revealing how Morgan succumbed to the drug culture around him. It dips into on-camera interviews with other band members, including Wayne Shorter, but always comes back to the music and to Helen – who served time for killing him…
Fonko, from the same team who made The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75, is a hugely uplifting, always restless doc on the music of Africa – including Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria and Angola – with the voice and flashed up words of Fela Kuti punctuating it throughout. Live performances, video and interviews all ping with energy, but also reference politics and religion too.
Sarah Taksler‘s Tickling Giants (right), is a brave film about a very brave man, Egyptian heart surgeon Dr Bassem Youssef, who always speaks as he finds, and aspires to be like his idol, Jon Stewart, despite the obvious obstacles in his way. But Bassem is heartened when his satirical show graduates from YouTube to a mainstream network, takes off around the time of the Arab Spring, and he even gets Stewart to appear as a guest. Reflecting and magnifying political and public opinion, he muses on what kind of democracy Egypt wants. But it all gets rather unpleasant and threatening as free speech is clamped down on… and we see whether he and his family can keep going despite this.
What is the ultimate taboo in comedy? What is the most tasteless subject matter? Ferne Pearlstein‘s The Last Laugh sets out to find out if it really is ‘Holocaust humour’. Her way in is a conveyor belt of witty interviewees, each talking straight to camera; a mixture of Jewish comedians and Holocaust survivors who either address the subject head on – or admit that they still can’t go there. So Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, Susie Essman, Rob Reiner and co ponder on whether humour can “heal us” and if “tragedy plus time equals comedy” (and if so, why wait?)
Go to page 2 for more great films from the BFI 60th London Film Festival.